Columbia and Aga Khan University Launch Dual Masters in Islamic Studies and Muslim Cultures

The new program will deepen understanding of the richness and complexity of Muslim cultures and civilizations.

Sabina Lee
March 09, 2020

Columbia and Aga Khan University are launching a dual masters degree program that will start this fall. The program will be administered by Columbia’s Middle East Institute (MEI) in New York and the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations (AKU-ISMC) at Aga Khan in London. Students will begin their studies at Columbia, finish them at Aga Khan and receive degrees from both institutions.

“This partnership will foster the development of the theoretical and practical perspectives needed to understand how Muslim societies are responding to pressing global challenges,” said Ira Katznelson, Columbia’s Interim Provost and Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History. “At this moment in history, such an endeavor is especially important.”

The program will provide a unique opportunity for students to learn from world-class scholars and have access to the distinctive academic resources of both universities. The partnership will also foster joint research projects and publications through faculty exchanges.

“The partnership of Columbia's Middle East Institute (MEI) with the Aga Khan University's Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations marries two of the strongest Islamic Studies programs in the world. Columbia's historic depth in the field, which begins in the nineteenth century, and AKU's wide-ranging breath, with its extensive academic networks from Central Asia to East Africa and even North America, will offer students and the public unparalleled opportunities for learning new and important knowledge about the Muslim world,” said Lisa Anderson, special lecturer and dean emerita at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“This is an excellent opportunity for students to experience two world-class programs which complement and add value to each other in many ways,” said AKU-ISMC Dean, Professor Leif Stenberg. “Now more than ever, we need to educate people to become leaders who have a deep and nuanced understanding of Islamic issues, enabling them to offer clear and thoughtful insight and guidance. The depth and breadth that this new program offers is unique and will prepare a group of young people to tackle some of the most important and pressing issues of their generation.”

The program’s director Dr. Kathryn Spellman Poots, an associate professor at AKU-ISMC and a visiting associate professor at Columbia, added: “We are delighted to launch this exciting dual degree program. Born from the values of pluralism, it brings together the world’s leading faculty, students and researchers who are advancing knowledge about Muslim cultures and civilizations, and bridging gaps of understanding in our divided world.”  

The innovative curriculum includes intensive foreign language instruction in either Arabic or Farsi. Enrolled students will be trained in thesis research, planning and methodology. They will take core courses that cover foundational concepts, theories and debates in the field of Islamic and Muslim studies. They will have access to elective courses that span different time periods and academic disciplines, providing them with the freedom and opportunity to design their own courses of study:  

  • Art and Architecture in Muslim Cultures
  • Authority and Legitimacy in Islamic History
  • Arabic Literary Heritage
  • The Qur’an in Europe
  • Shi’ites and Shi’ism
  • Visual Cultures of Modern South Asia
  • Political Economy of Development in the Middle East and North Africa
  • Gender, Power, Culture: India
  • Modern Muslim Mobility

The partnership seeks to build relationships with like-minded institutions around the world. AKU-ISMC and MEI faculty are currently working on projects related to early Islamic history and historiography and on gender and governance studies. Plans for future collaborations include projects that use digital tools to study the development of textual traditions in Arabic and comparative work on Muslim art and architecture. For more information, contact the Middle East Institute at [email protected].

About The Middle East Institute

The Middle East Institute (MEI) at Columbia University, founded in 1954, promotes the interdisciplinary study of the Middle East and North Africa together with associated regions of Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and related global communities. Drawing on the expertise of faculty and the interests of students located across the many academic departments and specialized schools of the university, the Institute’s activities focus on the advancement of academic knowledge and the enhancement of public understanding. 


The Aga Khan University established the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) in 2002. AKU-ISMC is a higher education institution with a focus on research, publications, graduate studies and outreach. It promotes scholarship that opens up new perspectives on Muslim heritage, modernity, culture, religion and society. AKU-ISMC students use critical thinking to conduct innovative research into Muslim civilizations and religious traditions from primarily the perspectives of the social sciences and humanities. The Institute aims to create opportunities for interaction among academics and other professionals so as to deepen understanding of the pressing issues of public life affecting Muslim societies.​